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Out of the Morgue
Dead Men Tell No Tales
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A 1908 photo of Barton Countys original courthouse. The courthouse square has always consisted of a two blocks long park--an awfully long route for a body to be drug around, as happened April 30, 1886, according to Barton County historian Karen Neuforth. - photo by courtesy of Karen Neuforth

April is a month filled with violent history, both in the past and present day.  By 1886, Great Bend’s lawless days were over.  Violence, however, still erupted from time to time.  This week, the Tribune presents an essay by local historian Karen Neuforth recounting two such incidents for Out of the Morgue.  

Special from Karen Neuforth

What story of a wild west cow town gone civilized would be complete without the tales left in legend and lore about justice served, rightly or wrongly, without benefit of civil trial? Records show that no legal hangings occurred in Barton County, yet a “hanging tree” stood for over a hundred years near the courthouse. Two lynchings are documented in local history.

Word spread rapidly on Sunday, April 26, 1886, that Frank H. Parker, proprietor of the billiard hall at Lakin & Main, had been found murdered. Coroner Shaw determined that the victim had been killed with a hatchet and suspicion centered upon Parker’s employee, George Mack. The frontier equivalent of an all points bulletin was telegraphed and rewards were offered.

That evening, when word of the murder and reward reached Kansas City, law enforcement officers began searching the trains arriving from the west. Soon, the suspicious behavior of a man matching Mack’s description caught the attention of a policeman, who confronted the suspect and found items belonging to the victim in his possession. After arrest, Mack confessed to the murder, but claimed that Parker had asked to be killed.

Barton County Sheriff James Dalziel went to Kansas City to bring back the wanted man. Public sentiment in Great Bend and Ellinwood (where Parker’s family lived) was so outraged that word was sent to the Sheriff that the alleged murderer would undoubtedly meet with violence when they returned to Great Bend. So, the Sheriff arranged with the train’s conductor to let them disembark about a mile and a half east of the depot. It seems, however, that the crowd bent upon vigilante justice was loathe to be cheated of their prey. About a hundred yards from the train, a mob rushed the Sheriff and his officers, overpowering them, and seizing the prisoner.

A rope was tied around Mack’s neck and he was drug behind a horse and rider toward town. Probably already dead long before the growing lynch mob reached Great Bend, Mack’s body was drug around the courthouse square and then over to the billiard hall where the murder was committed. There he was strung up from the awning and one of the crowd fired a shotgun blast through his body.

A coroner’s jury subsequently ruled that Mack came to his death by strangulation from a rope around his neck placed there by unknown persons.

The second recorded lynching occurred in 1898. On Saturday morning, April 9, 1898, the community was outraged to hear that 15-year-old Myrtle Hofmaster had been murdered the evening before by John M. Becker, a farm hand employed by her father. Becker, infatuated with the young woman, had become so enraged by her rejection of his attentions, that he determined to kill her. Miss Myrtle had been preparing to hitch up a team to attend singing school about 6 o’clock that fateful Friday evening when she became so alarmed at Becker’s behavior she fled toward the house. He fired at her with a revolver, hitting her three times, but she made it into the house. The murderer followed her inside, where she had sought her mother’s protection, and shot her twice more in the head. She died in her mother’s arms moments later.

After attempting to set fire to the house and barn, Becker fled the farmstead. Soon the whole countryside was hunting for this murderous fiend, but no signs of him were found until the following Tuesday evening, when Becker appeared after dark at a farm in Stafford County. Recognized by the farmer, who was unarmed, Becker left and the farmer immediately went to sound the alarm. Soon Becker was captured and Barton County Sheriff Aber took the murderer to Hutchinson that same evening for safekeeping.

Friday, June 17, the Great Bend Tribune reported that Becker had paid the penalty for Miss Myrtle’s untimely death. Brought from Hutchinson for trial, Becker was placed in the jail and then taken to the courtroom. Attempting to take the murderer back to Hutchinson after the hearing, the Sheriff and his men were overpowered, Becker was seized by a mob of about 300 men and hanged from a tree in the southwest corner of the courthouse square. The rope that ended Becker’s existence was cut into pieces and handed out as souvenirs to hundreds of unnamed witnesses.

No one was ever tried or convicted for either of these incidents of summary justice, although newspaper editors railed against these acts of vigilante justice.